Former banker Bernardo Benes naively thought he'd 
    hit upon a wonderful project for the University of Miami
Former banker Bernardo Benes naively thought he'd hit upon a wonderful project for the University of Miami
Jonathan Postal

An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

It's now official: Fidel Castro had nothing to do with a decision to gut the University of Miami's Dante B. Fascell North-South Center, a federally funded research institute that has specialized in hemispheric affairs since 1984. For months inquiring minds on and off campus have wondered if the shutdown, announced this past August, was some kind of power play to appease Miami's hard-line anti-Castro establishment. Even Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer wondered publicly if a "right-wing coup" had occurred. "This has nothing to do with Castro," says UM provost Luis Glaser. "No, no, no, no."

Glaser's assurance offers little consolation for twelve of the center's thirteen staff members who leave the UM payroll at the end of this month. Nor does it assuage retired banker Bernardo Benes, who saw his last hope for reviving an antipoverty summit at UM go out the door with them.

As an unpaid senior fellow, the 68-year-old Benes had been organizing a little- known North-South Center project called the Philanthropy in Action in the Americas Program (PAAP). As envisioned, PAAP would recruit former and current first ladies from across the Americas to help fight poverty in Latin America. The initiative would be launched with a summit at the University of Miami that would also include Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Hillary Clinton. Laura Bush would be asked to open the event.

Benes thought UM president Donna Shalala would love his project. After all, it fit perfectly with the question she asked in her 2001 inaugural address: "What must we do to lift children out of the grip of poverty?" But Benes blew a gasket a few months ago when he learned Shalala and provost Glaser had rejected the project.

Benes had been developing PAAP for a year on his own before moving his efforts to the North-South Center this past January with the blessing of the center's director, Ambler Moss, former U.S. ambassador to Panama. Benes made good progress. He lined up former Chilean first lady Marta Larraechea de Frei to recruit several current and former first ladies for a PAAP advisory board. She agreed to contact Ruth Cardoso of Brazil, Ana Milena Muñoz de Gaviria of Colombia, Julia Pou de Lacalle of Uruguay, and Josette Altmann de Figueres of Costa Rica. "The ultimate objective is to create a little foundation in every Latin American country with first ladies and ex-first ladies," Benes explains.

Benes also put together an impressive array of contacts at international and local institutions who wanted to participate. They included officials from the Pan American Health Organization, the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank, and Inter-American Dialogue, a public-policy center whose members include nine former Latin American presidents. Benes and Moss in May traveled to Washington, D.C. and held further discussions with those officials.

"They all thought it was a good idea," Moss says. "The Pan American Health Organization actually is the only entity that has an institutional relationship with the first ladies of the hemisphere and saw this as an opportunity to convert that essentially social and political occasion into something that could produce some money for philanthropy." Moss notes that in the Eighties the North-South Center had a similar project but couldn't find funding. To address that problem, Benes had targeted eight private foundations that fund economic-development programs in Latin America.

Benes also recruited important backers in Miami, including the deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Robert Bishop. The general and Coral Gables Mayor Donald Slesnick had agreed to host monthly breakfast meetings with CEOs of companies that do business in Latin America. Benes even managed to intrigue some members of UM's board of trustees. Trustee Enrique Falla, a business and financial consultant and former vice president at Dow Chemical, sent Benes a list of corporations he thought would have "potential interest" in a PAAP summit.

Benes believes no one is better prepared than he to make the PAAP a reality. In the Sixties, as a vice president at Washington Federal Savings and Loan Association of Miami Beach, Benes helped train 350 S&L executives in Latin America. Benes estimates the program, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, financed more than five million housing units in the region. He also directed Operación Medico Amigo, which provided aid to victims of four earthquakes in Latin America. He was a co-founder of Continental National Bank of Miami in 1976; director of business development at Universal National Bank from 1988 to 1992; and a senior executive at Jefferson Bank until 1997, when he retired.

"All we do [in Miami] is take the capital that is fleeing from Latin America," Benes observes. "We are getting billions of dollars from Latin America, but we are not giving back anything."

Benes is best known, however, for his secret meetings with Fidel Castro as an emissary for President Jimmy Carter in the late Seventies and later, briefly, for President Ronald Reagan. Even though the earlier missions led to the release of 3600 political prisoners in 1978, anti-Castro hard-liners branded Benes a traitor simply for talking with the dictator. Some threatened to kill him and his family.

Shalala, of course, is no hard-liner. Last December Benes found himself at a Coral Gables restaurant table with a group of people that included the UM president. He shared his PAAP idea with her. Benes says she asked him to follow up with her associate vice president for public affairs, Victoria Rivas-Vazquez. He did, e-mailing and phoning in status reports.

In March she sent Benes an encouraging e-mail. "I am very interested in the project, and would love to help," Rivas-Vazquez wrote. She had consulted with vice president of advancement Sergio Gonzalez and vice president of communications Jerry Lewis and they all agreed the North-South Center should send a proposal to Glaser.

But by the end of May, Glaser and Shalala had nixed the project. The official reasons: 1) PAAP was not appropriate for UM; and 2) Benes didn't have the expertise to organize it.

That notion still makes Benes fume. "I founded United Way International and that jerk says we don't have the expertise!" he exclaims. "This has been my life -- helping poor people."

The only explanation Benes could think of was that Glaser shot down PAAP to keep UM in the good graces of Miami's pro-embargo Cuban-exile establishment, or at least those who haven't forgiven him for meeting with Castro.

In August, however, Glaser revealed a larger motive for vetoing PAAP. He and Shalala had decided to gut the North-South Center altogether. Glaser fired its staff and folded their projects as part of a plan to "restructure" the center. He offered few details, fueling speculation and conspiracy theories. Last month he announced that the Rand Corporation, a California-based think-tank with little experience in Latin America, would start rebuilding the center in January.

While Benes may seem paranoid, his suspicions are rivaled by Glaser's shifting, unconvincing explanations for the North-South Center firings. "They [center staff] were relatively, I don't want to use the word narrow, but they were certainly restricted in what they were doing," the provost submits, adding that he is seeking "new expertise" and looking at the center "more broadly."

"We're talking about environmental issues, where science is involved, we're talking about health care and health-care delivery," the provost adds. In sum, the researchers were too focused on "the geopolitical arena."

"That's fascinating! That's an entirely new angle," marvels Ambler Moss, sole survivor of the purge because he is a tenured professor of international relations. The North-South Center did "tons of stuff" on environmental issues under his directorship and could easily have jumped into health issues. The center's outgoing research agenda also covered trade and economic policy, migration, democratic governance, security, corruption, and information technology.

And wouldn't Benes's idea for an anti-poverty summit featuring first ladies from across the hemisphere only help to broaden the new North-South Center?

"We didn't think that this was the kind of activity, worthwhile as it no doubt is, that we had particular expertise in doing," Glaser says. "We did not perceive that this was an area that he [Benes] had particular expertise in. As best as I could tell and we could tell, this is not an area where he had either been very successful or unsuccessful."

The provost finds it easier to explain what did not affect his decision. "This has got nothing to do with Cuban politics," Glaser reiterates with a sigh. "It was one of these very good ideas, which I would hope he succeeds in doing and that it's widely successful."

Just not at UM.


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